The human and economic cost of a decade-long war in Syria

26 March 2021 4 min. read

Around 600,000 people – 55,000 of them children – have been lost to a decade of war in Syria. A new report from economics consultancy Frontier Economics – commissioned by NGO World Vision – has laid out the human and economic costs of the war, with an urgent call for international support.

“An entire generation of children has been lost to the conflict in Syria,” laments Frontier Economics senior associate Amar Breckenridge, who sought to paint a picture of life in the war-torn country – once a vibrant cultural and artistic hub in the Arab world.

“Half the population have been forced from their homes, displaced inside their own country or across its borders. Children and their families live in constant fear of violence that threatens death or sexual assault, particularly against women and girls.”

Loss of children in the Syrian war compared to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars

World Vision regional leader for Middle East and Eastern Europe Eleanor Monbiot explained how children surviving in this dreadful environment “have lost their education, safety, family income and their hope in a peaceful future.”

War has paralysed and devastated Syria. Crude as it seems to try and quantify the damage, the researchers stress how numbers can make clear the unprecedented scale of destruction wrought, and the insufficiency of global support for recovery and rehabilitation.

For starters, even the conventional methods to measure the cost of war have fallen short. “We tend to look at where Syria is now compared to where it was 10 years ago. Whereas the appropriate comparison is between Syria’s economy as it is now, compared to where it would have been,” explained Breckenridge.

Loss of GDP from the Syrian war

Using this more reflective approach, the cost of the Syrian war in GDP terms comes out to be $1.2 trillion – close to the entire EU budget for a whole decade. Factor in the negative impact on the health and education of children, and this figure jumps to $1.7 trillion. And even if the war was stopped today, such is the setback dealt to infrastructure and human capital that Syria would lose another $1.4 trillion by 2035.

A mass exodus has ensued – the effects of which have been splashed across the European media and debated in political institutions as the ‘refugee crisis’. This is far from a choice. The researchers asked children what they desired from the future, and the overwhelming majority wants to return home to a peaceful home.

Yet for now, too many are afraid of being bombed if they return, while many have no home left to go back to. Others fear for the safety of women and children, and only after these immediate personal threats do refugees list more economic and political impediments such as lack of education, healthcare, food and water. Or fear of arrest, and recruitment to war activities.

Top impediments to refugee returns in Syria

Many of these dangers will persist even after the war has stopped, which rules out the possibility of any mass refugee return in the near future. So when the time comes to rebuild, there will be few left to rebuild for, and even fewer with the skill and ability to support the process.

A call for global support

As explained by Monbiot, the country needs help – far more than it currently receives. So far, humanitarian aid flowing into Syria amounts to less than 2% of the $1.2 trillion loss faced by the country. And this is just the economic side of things. Protecting the future of Syrian children will require a concerted and multilateral effort.

“No amount of funding and resources can replace the dire need for a successful political process at the UN level to stop this conflict. Children cannot and should not be held hostage to failed political processes. Syrian children will continue to pay the price for adult failures.”

“Ultimately it is those holding political power at Global, regional and national level that have the future of Syria’s children in their hands, and it is our expectation that they finally fulfil their obligations and find a route to peace, and then provide resources to enable the people of Syria to rebuild and restore their lives and livelihoods.”

Earlier this week, Frontier Economics was named one of the UK's top 25 strategy consulting firms.